Heritage, Not Hate? Decoding Confederate Nostalgia

October 28, 2021
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On the first night of our platoon’s scheduled four-day weekends, we would huddle in clumps around our muggy, maroon-carpeted barracks to drink and talk shit. Twenty or 30 military police — one of the most universally reviled occupational specialties in the Corps — the drunkest we would ever be in our lives. The year is 1998, but I don’t imagine Camp Lejeune barracks parties have changed much since. Picture a frat party with almost no women and even less common sense. If it’s a payday weekend, we drain Heinekens and Red Stripes. If not, we swill the Beast. We sweat to the B-side Al Green that my weightlifting buddy Bill insists on playing; bitch about the married marines who doubled their pay while avoiding the day-to-day bullshit of barracks life; and sizzle with resentment at the temporary lapse in judgment that landed us in the suck.

I had enlisted into the military police career field with hopes of becoming a working dog handler (my impression of the job shaped to an embarrassing degree by the G.I. Joe character Mutt and the neodog K-9 Corps in Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novel Starship Troopers). Instead, I had pulled guard duty at the base brig. After a little over a year, brig company’s leadership had failed to impress me. Several of our staff non-commissioned officers seemed downright incompetent. The job itself consisted of a 24-hour shift babysitting 20 to 40 military detainees and prisoners in an open squad bay that reeked of human excrement and industrial-strength bleach. A few had committed heinous acts, but most had just popped on a piss test. Young men who had raised their right hand to serve their country but then — instead of only partaking in institutionally sanctioned substance abuse at the barracks — took a puff of a joint at a party while home on leave. We were the unwitting, led by the unqualified, doing jack-shit for the unlucky.

 

 

One of the job’s few perks was the schedule. Overlapping guard platoons equaled a “96” — a four-day weekend — every three weeks. Tomorrow, we would lust after working class strippers at Toby’s or drive to Wilmington to get shot down by college girls. But on the first night of a 96, I could be found with our platoon’s other music lovers clunking bulky, black binders onto the finished oak coffee table that I had helped Tim, the third cog in our weightlifting triumvirate, load onto Bill’s truck at the Goodwill a couple of miles from Camp Lejeune’s front gate.

Bill was tall and yoked. Tim, short and yoked. I was just tall. I always suspected that part of the reason they lifted with me was for contrast — the bodybuilding equivalent of a bride positioning herself next to the homeliest bridesmaid. Both hailed from Florida: Bill from Tampa, Tim from a rural community so far north that, “it might as well have been in Georgia.” In the gym, our dynamic could be summed up by that old chestnut about how many bodybuilders it takes to screw in a lightbulb. Three: one to screw in the bulb and two to say, “You look massive, bruh!”

Pale and Irish with a neck like a utility pole, Bill benched 300 pounds for sets and looked it. He curated the CDs in his truck’s shuffle as if they would be entered into the congressional record. Between sets, Bill would sneak up behind you and mime the act of frantic fornication. It felt like getting dry-humped by a grizzly bear. At his most feisty, he referred to himself in the third person as “the Shogun.” As in, “Looks like you might need the Shogun to wake your ass up with a little heart punch.” It was wise to protect your chest when Bill started talking this way. Transferred from Okinawa at the same time my class showed up from Military Occupational Specialty school, Bill had already crested the halfway point in his four-year enlistment. Like many of the marines I served with, he planned to become a cop after his stint and did.

With a sandy blond “high and tight” and a jawline that could cut bread, Tim sort of looked like a too short, too buff Captain America. Lifting with him felt like throwing down in a bar fight, except afterward he would want to give you dap — like you had collaborated on the ass-whipping he just gave you. A weirdo, freak athlete, Tim sometimes showed up for platoon Physical Training still drunk, jogging from his black F-150 straight to formation, reeking of booze in his Marine Corps silkies. He would still smoke most of the stone-sober marines legitimately putting out. After training, Tim would drift between our platoon’s sewing circles of brothers, hayseeds, and everybody in between — talking shit while dribbling murky Copenhagen spit into a Mountain Dew bottle. Tim had made corporal in record time and, as our platoon’s “receiving and release” officer, he occupied a billet usually reserved for second-term sergeants.

Hunched over CD binders and perspiring bottles of Red Stripe in Bill’s room one balmy Lejeune weekend, Tim seemed legitimately taken aback at my reaction to the cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird: The Essential Collection.” Like most of the band’s albums and apparel, this CD’s cover art featured the Confederate battle flag unfurling in defiant rebel pride.

Raised on the notion of the Confederacy as a just response to northern aggression in a home where Skynyrd had seen heavy rotation, Tim grew up with the “Stars and Bars.” For me, the symbol had always meant: “Not welcome.” At best. As an Air Force brat, I grew up on military bases that were a cross section of American society and my interactions with the sleeveless-Skynyrd-T-shirt demographic had never been positive. From these people’s kids, I had heard the “states’ rights, not slavery” justification for secession ad nauseum and had long learned to stop engaging when these conversations reached the inevitable, “Besides, slavery wasn’t even that bad” crescendo.

Not Tim. Tim talked culture. “Capital S” Southern Culture.

“My people didn’t own any slaves, Dewaine.” We didn’t address each other by our first names much and Tim did so now in a voice that got everyone’s attention. “For me, that symbol really is about heritage, not hate.”

I had heard the catchphrase before. An ethos summarized by a smirking Shelby Foote in the documentary that made Ken Burns Ken Burns. Foote tells the story of a single, ragged confederate — who obviously didn’t own any slaves — captured by U.S. forces. When asked by the Yankees why he was fighting, the rebel replied, “I’m fighting because you’re down here.”

This myth asserts that the Civil War was fought by noble men protecting their communities and had nothing to do with slavery at all. It’s a version of history that disregards the deep investment Southern white people had in preserving an institutionalized racial hierarchy. Instead, the “Heritage, Not Hate” doctrine focuses on the honor, ingenuity, and ferocity of the Confederate soldiers themselves — disentangling them from the cause for which they fought. A cause that Alexander Stevens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, laid out quite plainly in his 1861 Cornerstone speech:

The prevailing ideas entertained by [Thomas Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. Those ideas were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Whatever else individual members of the government and military of the Confederate States of America may have believed, whatever their private thoughts on slavery, they took up arms in defense of one particular cause: white supremacy. As South Carolina’s senator John Calhoun put it in 1848:

The two great divisions of society are not rich and poor, but white and black. And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.

The “Heritage, Not Hate” version of history ignores slavery’s role in thrusting the United States to global economic prominence. By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of U.S. exports. However, the wealth accorded the United States by the institution of slavery was not just in what the slaves pulled from the land but in the slaves themselves. In this 2008 lecture, Yale historian David W. Blight contends that:

In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the American economy.

Slave ownership was aspirational (like homeownership today) and the institution was upheld with religious reverence. To steal a horse was a low crime, but to assist a runaway slave represented something much baser — a stain, a moral smirch — that Mark Twain fashioned into the central dilemma of his masterwork, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Early in the novel, Huck castigates himself for not betraying Jim to slave catchers:

I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn’t no use, conscience up and says, every time, ‘But you knowed he was running for his freedom and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.’ That was so — I couldn’t get around that, no way. That was where it pinched. Conscience says to me, ‘What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean?’

Even the kindest people Huck meets (and Huck himself) unquestioningly accept slavery. To do otherwise undermined Southern society itself.

Speaking around the toothpick in his mouth, Tim spun a compelling narrative of intrepid rebels running circles around inept and immoral U.S. commanders. The power of denial can transform a lost cause into vibrant lore. When asked why the South produced so many darkly comic storytellers of genius, novelist Walter Percy responded, “Because we lost.” Then he laughed. Having been outspent, outgunned, burned flat, and finally outlawyered, the South clings to a mythology that encompasses both strategy and morality.

The “Heritage, Not Hate” crowd understands how moral and strategic concepts provide a common vocabulary for coherent discussion. Imperatives like “Never refuse quarter to a soldier attempting to surrender” and “Never advance with your flank unprotected” are formed from a shared understanding of moral and strategic concepts. As Michael Walzer puts it in Just and Unjust Wars:

Here are soldiers moving away from the scene of a battle, marching over the same ground they marched over yesterday, but fewer now, less eager, many without weapons, many wounded: we call this a retreat. Here are soldiers lining up inhabitants of a peasant village, men, women, and children, and shooting them down: we call this a massacre.

Tim and I didn’t disagree on what constituted heroism on the battlefield. We disagreed because I refused to isolate these acts from the cause they served. When deliberating morality in war, dishonesty is more common than misunderstanding.

Even our sharpest disagreement about the Civil War — what to call the damn thing — was organized within our underlying agreements, by the meanings we shared.  “Heritage, Not Hate” dogma refers to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.” In the language of war, any perceived violation of territorial or political sovereignty constitutes aggression. The only thing all purportedly aggressive acts have in common is that they justify violent resistance. The term transforms the Civil War from a condition the Southern population endured to a crime it helped resist.

“If y’all stayed up North, ain’t nothing would have happened,” Tim said.

“Yeah, just millions of Black people woulda stayed slaves,” I responded. “No bigee.”

By now, the consensus in Bill’s room was that we take our “political bullshit” onto the catwalk.

Crickets teemed in the forest behind our barracks, drowning out the bass thudding from Bill’s room.

Sloped over the second-story railing with our beers, Tim compared Skynyrd’s cultural heft in his household with how I had, on another drunken evening, described Mahalia Jackson’s influence on mine.

I doubt that Tim had ever been called a “cracker” by a bunch of dudes in sleeveless Mahalia Jackson T-shirts, but at the time his argument gave me pause.

I considered Tim the best marine in our platoon. He had enlisted on an open contract to become a balaclava-ed commando, while I craved that old Hemingway style street cred, crucial to buttress the sort of writerly persona I longed to assume. Somehow, the big green weenie had nabbed both of us with the same commercials: that same booming voice, same sword, same challenge. Instead of mentioning the G.I. Bill or future employment prospects, Marine Corps adverts give you some guy navigating a medieval obstacle course of death to battle a dragon. Upon the dragon’s defeat, the young man is transformed by fire into a marine officer, who assumes the position of attention to the cheers of an adoring crowd. Seriously. Who falls for this stuff? I did. So did Tim, Bill, and a bunch of other brown, white, and black kids who grew up breathing the same American fables. As I sit here at my desk, struggling to summon the resentment I felt that night, I mostly find myself just missing those two. When you’re young, it’s easy to believe that such friendships will be frequent in life.

On the catwalk, Tim pushed a perfectly worn Bucs cap up to his crown and the print of his hatband lay on his forehead like a scar.

Then, he talked about Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. A lot.

Back then, I didn’t know much about Sherman’s Atlanta campaign or subsequent “March to the Sea.” But I admit that what I did know had always made me smile.

In 1864, Sherman bombarded Atlanta, forced the evacuation of its inhabitants, and burned the city to the ground. Then Sherman cut his own supply lines and, from November to December 1864, swept through Georgia. What his 62,000 troops didn’t eat, they destroyed: bridges, homes, cotton, livestock, factories, and miles of railroad. Sherman waged his campaign against an almost entirely civilian population, leaving a path of destruction 60 miles wide and more than 200 miles long before reaching Savannah.

After issuing the evacuation order and burning Atlanta in September 1864, Sherman received correspondence from the Confederate commander Gen. John Bell Hood:

And now, sir, permit me to say that the unprecedented measure you propose transcends, in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war.

In a Sept. 12, 1864 letter to Atlanta Mayor James Calhoun and other city civic leaders, Sherman bluntly characterized his view on the matter: “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.”

From Sherman’s perspective, the Confederate leadership could easily restore peace by yielding obedience to federal law, rendering the war entirely and singularly the crime of the rebels. But after we answer the question, “who started this war?” have we finished distributing responsibility for the suffering the soldiers who fought in it inflicted? No. But I wouldn’t have admitted that to Tim that night. Like I said, in these sorts of conversations, dishonesty is more common than misunderstanding.

We judge every war twice, drawing a line of responsibility between the cause (jus ad bellum) and the conduct (jus in bello). General and flag officers may well straddle this line, but that only suggests we know pretty well where it should be drawn. Before setting off from Atlanta, Sherman swore to his friend and commander Ulysses S. Grant that he would “make Georgia howl.” By all accounts, he more than kept his word. The scars Sherman left on the South can still be found. Tim grew up hating the guy. He claimed to have relatives who maintained saber-slashed sofas in their attics.

Comparative suffering might be a dead-end game, but as far as I was concerned, 240 years of bondage trumped some Georgia slave owner’s tough couple months. No matter who suffered more (it was us), the question remains: Did Sherman’s brutal means supersede the just cause for which it was implemented? Maybe. That’s the most I can concede to Capital “S” Southern Culture.

But consider how the “Heritage, Not Hate” version of history flips this convention on its head by arguing that the Confederacy’s heroic means actually superseded its despicable cause. Those wily rebels slew their former compatriots with such heroism that we should ignore the fact that they betrayed their country to uphold white supremacy.

On the catwalk that night, I didn’t need Tim to agree that his great-great-grandparents were monsters. Wars are fought by people, not monsters. If my work with the United Nations taught me nothing else, it’s that what we tend to call inhumanity is really just humanity under pressure. War is cruelty and you can’t refine it.

But, as a nation, what we should acknowledge — for all of our sakes — is that many of Tim’s ancestors fought long, hard, and maybe even bravely for an utterly evil cause. An uncomfortable truth, that we cannot forget—whether accidentally or deliberately, through a bloated regional ego or the distraction offered by excessively remembering something else, like battlefield heroics.

***

Bill and his wife own a gym today. Given the differences in our political views, I imagine that Bill probably mutes me on social media as much as I mute him. But if we ever ran into each other, I’m sure he would give my knuckle game a test and then wrestle me into a headlock and start humping away.

I haven’t heard from Tim since the summer of 1999, when I got orders for embassy guard school in Quantico. It took an invitation to speak at an active shooter webinar for humanitarian security personnel two decades later to put me in mind of Tim again.

I have written elsewhere about the June 19, 2013 complex attack at the U.N. Common Compound in Mogadishu, but until this summer I had never been asked to speak about it to an audience of my peers. Preparing for the talk, I scoured old after-action reports, photos, and memories for “teachable moments.”

On the day of the attack, it took several seconds for me to realize that the blast had occurred at our front gate. The vehicular-borne improvised explosive device seemed to erupt everywhere, all at once. A volcanic shuddering star of evil splendor hurling blunt force, fire, and shrapnel. I stumbled to the balcony of the radio room as the buzz in my ears flatlined into a dial-tone whine, snuffing out the rumble of the compound’s generators. A fusillade of secondary explosions rolled like coiled thunder through the compound’s warren of offices and accommodation. Then small arms. The flat pop-pop-pop-pop of AK-47 fire. The sharp zing of ricochets. The bouncing acoustics of a cramped firefight. Close. Everything felt close.

Our Somali guards returned disciplined fire, clotheslining the first two al-Shabaab gunmen through the breach. Four more militants immediately leaped over the smoldering rubble and bodies of their comrades, squeezing off bursts from the Kalashnikovs at their hips to storm the compound. Whatever other specters clouded those gunmen’s souls, physical cowardice was not among them. That’s as close as I can bring myself to calling those murderous, death-cult thugs “brave.”

Eight years later in my office, I stared at the photos of the corpses — limp and inhuman as bags of grain — stacked in the dirt next to one of the gates in the U.N. compound. Teenagers mostly. Undernourished, ignorant, and tough as coffin nails. The kind of boys easily inspired to throw away their undervalued lives for words like “honor” and “glory.”

Some beautiful Southern boys threw their lives away for the lie of white supremacy and that hurts my heart. It truly does. But causes matter. Any continued, federally mandated memorialization of the members of the military or government of the Confederate States of America should address the cause for which those men fought and died. Yeah, I’m talking about Forts Hood, Bragg, Benning, and all the rest. There is no mandate to celebrate those who took up arms against the United States, no matter how well they fought or how much they suffered.

And that’s as close as I’ll get to calling those traitors “brave.”

 

 

Dewaine K. Farria’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Rumpus, the Mantle, CRAFT, and the Southern Humanities Review. He is the author of the novel Revolutions of All Colors. You can find more of Dewaine’s writing at dewainefarria.com.

Image: Department of Defense (Photo by EJ Hersom)